A leading member of the Association of Catholic Priests has said it would be dangerous for diocesan clergy in Ireland to ignore the depth of depression and despair in their ranks.
Fr Brendan Hoban also criticised a small number of bishops for bullying priests and warned of an increasing number of suicides among the clergy.
Speaking at the ACP’s annual general meeting in Athlone, he further criticised the apparently official policy of bishops of automatically reporting anonymous accusations of clerical abuse to An Garda Síochána.
He said this practice would be unconscionable and much resisted if applied to teachers, lawyers, gardaí or any other professional group.
Aged 68 and based in Ballina, Co Mayo, Fr Hoban has reached what he says is approximately the average age of diocesan priests in Ireland.
In the past four decades very many parish priests have lost the assistance of curates who have become an endangered species, he said. He said no parish priests in his own diocese employ live-in housekeepers.
Statistics indicate that most diocesan priests may well die on their own, he continued.
In contrast to 50 years ago “there are no vocations to dioceses, congregations (are) melting away …, collections (are) declining … and morale (is) at an all-time low.”
He said they are often pitied, patronised, reviled, insulted, disrespected, ignored and resented.
He said that in some dioceses, the level of distrust between priests and bishops has generated an increasingly obvious build-up of resentment and anger.
He added that some – but not many – bishops are bullying priests who do not have the confidence to face them down because of the level of control bishops exercise over their priests’ lives.
In his address, Fr Hoban said that recently a priest who was retiring was asked to vacate his house with no prospect of alternative accommodation being provided.
He described this as “an appalling attitude” which “should be named and shamed as scandalous if a bishop, taking advantage of a vulnerable priest, can dictate terms and conditions that infringe the individual rights of priests to equity and justice”.
He added that it is unacceptable that some priests are given preference because of their perceived loyalty to a bishop.
Diocesan priests’ distrust in the Church leadership is exacerbated by the policies being pursued by the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown in ignoring the traditions of dioceses, the preferences of priests and the rights of people to what Fr Hoban described as the present mock consultation about the appointment of bishops.
He added that frustration at the unhappy and sometimes bizarre choice of bishops is adding unnecessarily to the burden of priests.
He said some bishops were doing the same by unjustly manipulating the commitment to priesthood of elderly priests in an effort to persuade them to postpone their retirement beyond 75.
He said diocesan clergy often have few close friends and the circle is diminishing with age and that a growing fearfulness and anxiety, born out of isolation, can mark their later years, creating a new vulnerability and nervousness in their lives.
He added that there is “a growing disillusionment among priests in their 50s and 60s and a consequent drift out of priesthood, not because of celibacy but in search of companionship and what might be more generally called ‘normality'”.
He said he does not doubt that the Catholic Church will survive in Ireland and adapt to changed circumstances.
But he asked how the last priests in this country can survive the final years of their lives with comfort, esteem and affection.
He warned that their ever-increasing workload morphs them into “sacrament-dispensing machines” and that they “find pastoral work less and less satisfying with progressively little or no engagement with their parishioners”.
He said they are also struggling with issues beyond their training and probably their competence, citing the example of the quandary of how to minister to parents of same-sex couples who may be upset or worried or confused.
‘Reviled’ priests’ morale at all time low, conference hears
Fr Brendan Hoban says clerics are being turned into ‘sacrament-dispensing machines’
Patsy McGarry in Athlone
The diocesan priest in Ireland today was “often pitied, patronised, reviled, insulted, disrespected, ignored and resented,” Fr Brendan Hoban said at the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) annual meeting in Athlone on Wednesday.
“A gale-force wind is now in our faces, it’s the middle of the second half and we’re 6-0 down,” said Fr Hoban, a co-founder of the association.
Priests were “the equivalent of Plymouth Argyle, struggling to stay in the third division.”
They were being bullied and were prone to depression with an increase in suicide rates over recent years, he added.
He said that with “no vocations, congregations melting before our eyes, collections declining by the year” morale was “at an all-time low.”
He asked: “How can the last priests in Ireland survive the final years of their lives with comfort, esteem and affection?”
As they aged they were “expected to work longer and harder” while the effect was that “we morph into sacrament-dispensing machines” with “progressively little or no engagement with our parishioners”.
Meanwhile, “the level of distrust between priests and bishops is such that a build-up of resentment and anger is increasingly obvious in some dioceses.”
Some bishops were “using their positions to force their personal authority on priests.” He felt “the word ‘bullying’ is not inappropriate.”
This distrust was “exacerbated” by the papal nuncio who ignored “the traditions of dioceses, the preference of priests and the rights of people to genuine as opposed to mock consultation” in the appointment of bishops. The consequent “unhappy and sometimes bizarre choice of bishops” added “unnecessarily to the burden of priests” as did pressure to serve beyond the retirement age of 75.
Referring to situations in which bishops automatically reported anonymous allegations of child abuse to gardaí, he said this was “a practice that would be unconscionable and much resisted “where other professions were concerned.
“We elderly priests live increasingly isolated lives, a condition exacerbated by age. We live alone. We often have few close friends, diminishing as we grow older.”
Combined “with the implosion of our church” it meant “we’re prone to depression in one or other of its manifestations.”
As old age beckoned “there’s a growing sense, almost of desperation, when we realise how little care, esteem or affection may be in our lives.”
In the media they were now “ritually presented as bad news people, controlling, oppressing, limiting, obsessing.”
He acknowledged he was painting a bleak picture. “And I will no doubt be accused of being negative by the usual suspects, including some bishops.” But he believed the question that needed to be asked “is not whether my presentation of the landscape of our lost tribe is bleak or negative, but is it true?”
Dr Marie Keenan of UCD’s School of Applied Social Science urged the priests “to mourn the loss of what has gone, individually and collectively so that it can be let go without trying to cling on, and to enable the new light of renewal to shine. Renewal comes in the wake of our grieving.”
International studies had shown that that “while the majority of priests are coping, they show signs of needing professional or emotional attention and organised help if they are to adjust adequately to the challenges of modern priesthood.”
She urged them “to consider a nationwide campaign of healing circles involving clergy – and later involving laity, victims and offenders. I urge you to reinstate forgiveness and redemption as being of God and something which we might all work to with courage.”
Most of all, she urged them “to take care of yourself in this time of uncertainty and challenge”.
Priests accuse bishops of ‘trying to fob us off’
Prelates ‘don’t want exclusive club changed’, Association of Catholic Priests meeting told
Many priests at the well-attended annual general meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Athlone on Wednesday expressed dissatisfaction with the response of the bishops to a meeting last May with a delegation from the association. The bishops were accused of “trying to fob us off”.
Fr Kevin Hegarty of Killala diocese said a letter sent to the ACP last month was “a marvellous illumination of the Seamus Heaney line ‘whatever you say, say nothing’.”
Mill Hill priest Fr Kevin Reynolds, now of Elphin diocese, said “the bishops do not and will not recognise the ACP as an existing reality. They don’t want their exclusive clerical club changed by an association representing 1,000 priests. They least they could do is respect us, acknowledge we exist and that we have something to say.”
Fr Tim Murphy of the Dublin archdiocese warned against a scattergun approach in dealing with the bishops and suggested that “we should go bald-headed for a synod of the Irish church.”
Passionist priest Fr Pat Rogers also spoke of “prioritising a synod”. He said “the church has become invisible on the media. The religious voice has almost disappeared.” He suggested the ACP leadership might “fill that lacuna”.
Redemptorist priest Fr Adrian Egan wondered “why bother” where future meetings with the bishops were concerned. “Carry on as an alternate voice,” he suggested.
Fr Dan O’Mahony of Achonry diocese said “new models of priesthood need to be looked at. A change of ‘uniform’ as well.” He also referred to how people “see so little of the bishop. It would be very strange for a football manager never to see his team.”
Bishops “need to be more directly and more pastorally involved with their dioceses,” he said.
The meeting elected Fr Roy Donovan and Fr Tim Hazelwood to the ACP leadership team to replace Fr Seán McDonagh and Fr Séamus Ahearne, who have stood down.
The ACP financial report showed its income for the past year was €20,800 with expenditure of €5,500 leaving a total balance of €31,000 in its account.
Administrative secretary Liamy McNally was introduced to the meeting.
The meeting was also told the ACP website – www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie – received 62,000 hits last month, with 280,000 views.